Figs, Figs, Figs, and 7 Pears in Three Chapters

Figs.16-0558

The other day, my friend Liesel came over bearing gifts, late summer presents from her garden, pears and figs. Two pears have since been consumed, but the ripe figs required a little more detailed attention. What do you do with a kilo of figs, if you’re not really interested in making jam? Easy, you make chutney!

Searching online for a recipe, I came across the website of Traci Antonovich aka “The Kitchen Girl“. Low and behold, her most recent post was titled Serrano Spiced Fig Jam – auspicious, right? Developing my own recipe with ingredients I happened to have around, I was nevertheless heavily leaning on The Kitchen Girl’s recipe. Thank you, Traci!

First Chapter: FIGUES AIGRE-DOUX

Figs.01-0488

Let’s get the ingredient list out of the way, shall we?

Figs.02-0494

  1. 50 ml blood orange juice, freshly pressed if possible
  2. 1 Kg ripe figs, trimmed and quartered
  3. 2 Espelette chiles, seeds & ribs removed, sliced thinly
  4. 1 heaped tsp grated ginger plus 1 chunk about 2 x 2 x 1 cm
  5. 1 heaped tsp grated lemon zest
  6. 20 g light brown sugar, or less to taste
  7. 0.5 tsp of powdered cinnamon, or more to taste
  8. pinch of salt
  9. 0.5 tsp powdered Curcuma [Turmeric]
  10. 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  11. 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
  12. 20 g butter

Figs.03-0495

For a spice package to be cooked with the figs, you need a Tbsp of toasted coriander seeds, 5 cloves, and a small thyme & laurel bundle.

Slicing and dicing all these ingredients is a little annoying, but once you’ve assembled everything the rest is a breeze. Start out by toasting the coriander seeds at medium-low temperature, which then go with the other aromatics in the flexible rubber turkey leg or any more boring spice satchel you have at hand. Then pour the orange juice into the still hot pan [watch for the splash!] and immediately add the figs and chiles. Now turn the heat all the way down and relax. Stir the pot lazily while incorporating ingredients 4. through 8.

Figs.09-0515

Gently simmering, let it all turn into a soupy slush, occasionally scraping the sides and bottom of the pot while excess moisture evaporates. Oh, I almost forgot, put the turkey leg in the center of the fig soup and turn it ever so often to release the aromas.

Figs.10-0516

While we’re hanging out in the kitchen, let me tell you about the Piment d’Espelette, the bright red peppers we’re using in this recipe.

Figs.04-0499

Figs.05-0500

These pretty chiles are fairly spicy, but a lot milder than Serranos. They are cultivated, who da thunk it, in Espelette, a town in the Basque Country not all that far from us in the SW of France, right in the Pyrenees mountains separating France from Spain.

Figs.17-0184-2

The region is very beautiful

Figs.18-2

with many small villages where one finds local specialties like yaourt au lait de brebis [incredibly creamy sheep-milk jogurt] to be enjoyed with a dollop of rich, black cherry preserve, also a regional product. As you see in the close-up above, the chiles carry the AOP label [Appellation d’Origine Protégée] which means that only the Espelette community may sell peppers under this name.

And, if you will indulge me, staying with these chiles a little while longer …

Figs.06-0501

DO NOT PROCESS THEM WITHOUT GLOVES! The scorched skin capsaicin effects are NOT pleasant.

Figs.07-0510

Once you are satisfied with the consistency of your chutney, add ingredients 9. through 12.

Figs.11-0523

Then turn off the heat and let your chutney rest for a little bit before ladling it into jars or similar.

Figs.13-0561

Second Chapter: MORNING GLORY* CHEESE PIE with FIG CHUTNEY

Now that we have all that lovely chutney, what are we going to do with it?

Fig.Pie.01-0526

As we also happen to have a large, hairy sweet potato and a nice chunk of reblochon melty cheese, we might as well bake a deep dish pie. I’m a notoriously inept baker, but as silly as my creations look, they do usually taste alright.

Fig.Pie.02-0527

We recently bought a fancy new kitchen machine and I’m still learning how to use it. Our lovely Morning Glory project thus offered both kneading and slicing teaching moments for me. The dough was just a simple bread dough of flour, water, salt, and yeast, to which I added one egg before the second proofing. It rose quite nicely but was such a sticky mess that I ultimately had dough up to my elbows. And I left the high rim in the baking dish much too thick, resulting in a lumpy skyscraper of an awkwardly towering crust, oh well. While the dough was fermenting, I ran the tuber through the slicing disk of the machine, thankfully not encountering any problems. The pie filling consisted of alternating, irregular layers of chutney, sweet potato, and cheese.

Fig.Pie.03-0532

The baking time for such a monster is considerable. I left it in the oven first for 45 mins at 180C [convection] plus another 30 mins at 160ºC, plus a few mins of broiling to brown the cheesy surface – and the sweet potato slices were still ever so slightly underdone. Better than a totally mushy mess, I hope?

Fig.Pie.04-0535

Fig.Pie.05-0552

And then there was the third Chapter: PLAIN-TOMATO-PIE

As it happened, I had some dough left over. Loath to throw anything away, I made a second, very simple small pizza pie consisting of a thin base spread with mustard & olive oil, over which I layered sliced tomatoes and topped them with a little grated parmigiano and spices. Basta! That was it!

Tomato.Pie.02-0548

Tomato.Pie.01-0541

I have to admit, I do have a great affinity for tomatoes and cheese – and the right wine to complement them 🍷 For our Double-Pie-Fiesta, I opened a bottle of nicely chilled Châteaux Penin 2017 Bordeaux Clairet. For just a second, it looked like we might enjoy an elegant dinner …

Figs.14-0553

… when we moved operations back into the kitchen to eat in front of the TV.

Figs.15-0555

It was, after all, college football night!

[* Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, are in the Morning Glory family of Convolvulaceae]

 

TGCC of 2018

TGCC.13-1330220

Over the last couple of months, we conducted

The Great Champagne Challenge of 2018

in our dining room. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t casual, hell, no, it was damn serious, it was a true challenge. Just look at all those bottles!

We don’t actually drink champagne often. Mostly on St. Sylvestre, as New Year’s Eve is called around here, maybe to celebrate a birthday or to welcome houseguests. Let’s say we’re special occasion champagne sippers.  It all began with an idea earlier this summer. Keeping the keyword “special” in mind, we asked ourselves, shouldn’t we have our own special house champagne? A champagne we both enjoy equally and which would become “our” signature champagne at C2L, our home in Cognac* called Chez Deux Leons.

[* We already have two House Cognacs, but that’s a different story 😉]

One of those two lions in our house promptly began exhaustive online research into champagne in general, facts and terminology, and the range of champagnes available in our price range. By the time his birthday rolled around in mid-July, the first selection of champagne candidates had arrived.

BD.BNL.2018.15-0152

Before ever tasting the champagnes, it was already quite a challenge to select our tasting candidates. If I tell you that there are over one hundred Champagne Houses, plus nearly 20 000 small growers or vignerons, you’ll understand the inherent difficulties. Nevertheless, Barry prevailed digging through this considerable mountain of bottles on offer to assemble our roster of candidates.

We made sure to apply stringent rules to our champagne tasting, striving for the highest possible rate of neutrality. Tasting three champagnes in each test, we recorded private notes on appearance, bouquet, and taste of each champagne. We also assigned a rating between 1 – 10 to each candidate for the position of C2D House Champagne.

TGCC.01-1330047

Getting ready for the first tasting in TGCC of 2018

TGCC.07-0357

Barry would open the bottles and while I waited in the kitchen, he poured two glasses per bottle, recording which champagne he assigned to the A, B, and C glasses. Then we switched rooms and I would rearrange the paired glasses to my 1, 2, and 3 tasting sequence.

TGCC.02-1330062

I know that this picture shows our first tasting event because for all following tests we used wine glasses for ease of bouquet evaluations.

In the group shown just below, I want to point out a champagne-making rarety. The wine in the center bottle, Les Murgiers, was made by the House Francis Boulard and Daughter, Fille rather than the usual Fils, son. Nice.

TGCC.03-0241

We staged nine tasting events for our Great Champagne Challange which included half bottles whenever possible. But some champagnes were not available in a smaller size and we had to endure the hardship of actually drinking all that bubbly.

TGCC.04-0243

We did find out, though, that champagne, if well stoppered with a good quality champagne cork [above, black & below, yellow] may remain drinkable for a couple of nights.

TGCC.12-1330210

The Francis Boulard Rosé Extra Brut came out tops among the pinks

Originally there were only two rosé champagnes included in the challenge. To preserve anonymity, we had to order a third one and test this group separately.

TGCC.15-1330246

We amassed quite a collection champagne corks and of muselets, the wire cages holding the corks in the bottles against the internal pressure. Now let us proceed to the all-important question, which champagne made the podium?

TGCC.14-1330222

Adding in the numbers for the rosés, the top four champagnes included a second Boulard!

TGCC.17-1330253

With their test score of 19 points each, the Philipponnat Royale Réserve Non-Dosé [no sugar added] and Francis Boulard et Fille ‘Les Murgiers’ shared first place. The other Boulard champagne, the Francis Boulard Rosé earned third place honors with 18.5 points. Our fourth place finisher was a huge surprise to us. With a respectable 18 points, it out-scored all the big-names like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Deutz, and Bollinger among others. Instead, we encountered an old friend in fourth place. The Voirin-Desmoulins champagne is a well-priced recommendation at the E.Leclerc supermarket chain, where we have been buying it ever since we discovered it there two or three years ago!

TGCC.16-1330251

We haven’t quite settled on the ultimate contender for C2L House Champagne yet. Personally, I’m leaning toward Les Murgiers, naturally!

 

 

Our Baby Z

Our home in Cognac has a shed which we use as a garage. It’s a spacious garage, really, but it means carrying the groceries across the yard to the kitchen. Not a horrible proposition, certainly, except when it rains or there are many wine bottles involved, or the old back is acting up – you get the idea. Luckily, we also have an attached barn just past the kitchen that actually has a garage door opening onto a street. Perfect, right? Well, it could be.

As one can see in the following two pictures the sales agent took for her file, there are positive and negative aspects to this potential garage.

Cognac.Jacqui.04-1070811-2

Looking at the old garage door from the utility room

The garage door was falling apart, but more importantly, it is too narrow for our car to fit through it. On the plus side, though, it’s right next to the kitchen/utility area.

Cognac.Jacqui.03-1070810-2

Looking toward the utility room & kitchen

We immediately started plotting to turn this barn into a practical, usable space by enlarging the door opening and installing a handy, motorized garage door, only to have our hopes squashed by local masons and general contractors.

There were two major issues. Firstly and most importantly, the city water intake pipe arises from the ground at the inside edge of the cut stone door frame, whereby “inside” means closest to the opening. The Water Provider would be very happy for us to undertake a modernization of the outdated setup by relocating the pipe itself and moving the counter outside for easy reading. At our cost, naturally. One of the contractors told us that the bill was around $5000 last time he had to do something similar on one of his jobs. A further potential problem is the fragility of those old rubble stone walls. Long story short, it would be prudent to install a new, full-length I-beam to assure the overall stability of the barn, and maybe some corner anchors. And would the roof make it through all those changes? Would we get city hall approval for the necessary building permit? Too many “Ifs”! Such a disappointment!

It was time to change track. If we can’t enlarge the door opening, could we possibly shrink the car? Barry began researching the availability and cost of gently used electric cars with promising results. The decrepit double door, though, still had to be replaced. The wood was crumbling and in order to open it, one needed two different keys to unlock it, plus two heavy iron bars had to be lifted off and five additional hooks had to be removed – all of which could only be done from the inside. Whoever installed that contraption must have been quite paranoid!

We proceeded to realize our new plans and first updated the electricity in the barn with two independent circuits for a motorized door and a charging station for a car. Then we had a new garage door installed and, just last week, we bought our low-mileage Citroën C-Zéro which fits perfectly fine through that darn narrow opening – as long as you flip in the rear view mirrors!

C-Zero.01-0462

Our new arrival 💐

On Friday morning, our electricity provider sent over a technician to re-calibrate our counter for night and day electricity tariffs. We now pay a reduced charge for all electricity usage between 22 and 6 hrs. In November, Cognac residents are slated to receive a new generation of counters which will extend those night-time reduced charges throughout the weekend. Being a little greener will hopefully be reflected in our monthly expenses as well. At least, after I figure out how to program the washer and dish-washer for delayed starts!

On Friday night shortly after 22 hrs, I hooked up Zéro for her first “at home” charge. It’s always a bit iffy when you do something for the first time, isn’t it?

C-Zero.02-1330235

C-Zero.03-1330236

C-Zero.04-1330237

The charge went well, so I took Baby Z grocery shopping this morning after which we pulled into the garage backward. So much easier to pull back out, not to mention to unload the shopping 😊

Cognac Impressions

Opening this blog just now, I realized that there’s a queue of five drafts waiting for my attention. I also noticed that I last posted back in May. It does appear I have seriously neglected you!

Earlier this week we drove into town to go to an artisanal frame shop to have some picture frames repaired. The shop is at the edge of Cognac’s pedestrian zone in the center of Old Town, where it is often a little difficult to find a parking space – particularly if one has mysteriously lost all previous possessed skills of parallel parking. This time, parking wasn’t a problem since the town was practically deserted. Cognac is currently snoozing through its August congés, the general summer break for pretty much every business in town.

These “congés payés” or paid vacations were first introduced in Germany in 1905 and over the next 30 years or so, the Scandinavian countries, then Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg, and Rumania implemented similar laws, followed by France on the 20th of June 1936. Having been raised in Germany, you can imagine my surprise when I arrived in the United States of America in 1978 and discovered that my first job in the Department of Cellular Biology at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, had virtually no fringe benefits. Worlds apart, then and still.

But let us return to Cognac! The atelier we had planned to visit, naturally, was also closed and realizing the futility of trying to do business in August, we just perambulated slowly through the very quiet Old Town, noticing this, seeing that. We discovered, for example, the Municipal Library which is hidden deep inside the Cloisters of the former Benedictine nunnery Notre-Dame-de-la-Grâce.

Cognac.VieuxVille.01-0409

In the year 1016, the construction of a Benedictine priory was authorized by the lords of Cognac. The Prieuré Saint-Léger soon nestled alongside the even older parish church of the same name. Together, they formed the nucleus of the medieval town center.

Cognac.VieuxVille.02-0412

Remnants of 15th-century vaults in the cloister wall

The priory buildings sustained substantial damage through the violent actions of the 100-year war and the French wars of religion and the few remaining monks ultimately abandoned the priory. Around 1623, the bishop in Saintes named a contingent of Benedictine nuns from the convent of the Abbaye des Dames de Saintes the new owners of the priory in Cognac. These ladies rolled up their sleeves and restored the convent, which then operated under the name of Prieuré Notre-Dame-de-la-Grâce. During the French revolution, when all church-owned properties were confiscated, the convent became the property of the town and has housed the city archives and the municipal library ever since.

Continuing our walk past the cloisters and the neighboring church, we turned right into rue d’Angoulême. This is the main street within the pedestrian zone where shops and cafés provide plenty of entertainment. As we were window-shopping at a very leisurely pace, I noticed double doors on my right next to a bright yellow postal box. The doors were open, allowing me to see inside a wide corridor.

Cognac.VieuxVille.03.A-0413

I saw a curious mixture of the old and the new in front of me. Ancient stone wall to the right, modern partitions on the left. The contemporary drop-ceiling with integrated pot lights hanging low over a cobbled ground, more typical for oldfashioned town streets. At the far end of this indoor-outdoor space, I noticed an ancient stone archway, partially obscured by the modern ceiling, offering a tantalizing glimpse of another, dimly lit space behind this entryway.

Cognac.VieuxVille.03.B-0415

Tip-toeing ever closer, the murky space revealed itself as a tiny but extremely tall chamber with an additional door on the left through which organ music emanated. In this absurdly proportioned room lived a lonely sculpture, sadly engrossed in conversation with a folding stepladder. The arms of the Royal House of Valois decorating the monument’s base indicated some importance. Above the solitary figure, we saw two windows, some superimposed walls, and high arches framing a  ceiling cupola.

Cognac.VieuxVille.03.E-0414

Cognac.VieuxVille.03.D-0417

Scroll up from here to get an impression of the great height and small footprint of this space

Cognac.VieuxVille.03.C-0416

Identity to be determined

Clearly, this was once a part of Saint-Léger church, now reduced to a side entrance to the main body of the parish church. I have to come back to take a closer look at the statue and try to identify it.

We continued our walk for a while along rue d’Angoulême before reversing our steps toward Place Beaulieu, where our car was parked.

 

On the way back to the car, this automated convenience store attracted my attention. Always open, so it promises, the store is equipped with eight tall wending machines loaded with single-serve microwave dinners, ready-to-eat soups, chips, nuts, crackers, candy bars, and cookies – including Oreos – ice-cream, sodas, water, coffees, popcorn, you name it, it’s here!

Cognac.VieuxVille.05-0422

24/24  7/7  Épicerie Automatisé – Automated grocery store

The details of the curtained window were inspiring.

Cognac.ShadowPlay.06-0423

Although the workshop to repair our paintings had been closed, we still encountered interesting works of art during our downtown stroll.

 

 

 

Gentle Observations

The weekend calm of our pastoral suburb of Crouin was disturbed by a succession of three thunderstorms sweeping across the town of Cognac this afternoon. The storms brought squalls of heavy rain which pounded the ancient skylights in the roof above our staircase. Having moved-in less than two months ago, we’re not yet used to the origins and meanings of the creaking and groaning this old house produces for varying reasons. Therefore, the rain’s concerto against glass, wood, and stone, accompanied by claps of thunder near and far was a little disconcerting.

This morning, on the other hand, I stepped through the front door into a sunny and peaceful garden.

Wildlife.05-1320006

As I walked through the overgrown and riotous wilderness, I noticed all manners of secret wildlife.

Wildlife.01-1310948

A freshly polished young snail

Wildlife.03-1310993

A busy bee

Wildlife.04-1320014

A shy putto hiding beneath a rose that hasn’t been trimmed in ages

Wildlife.02-1310957

A parrot swinging on his perch, still with an adventurous gleam in its wooden eye, even though the poor thing lost all lacquered luster a long time ago

Returning to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, I suddenly realized: I had fallen down the rabbit hole where stuffed birds keep company with gangly giraffes.

Wildlife.06-1320020

Wishing Y’all a colorful weekend!

[Giraffe by Mordillo]